Ihumātao: Everyone was there, e hoa
An essay by Wellington poet Tayi Tibble on her experience at Ihumātao.
There’s a specific sort of shame in pulling up to Ihumātao in an Uber. The shame comes from knowing that Dame Whina Cooper walked the entire North Island in order to advocate for the protection of indigenous land and here I am, in the backseat of a $13, carbon-emitting Toyota Prius. In 1975, Whina Cooper’s hikoi from Te Hapua all the way to Parliament in Wellington took 29 days to complete. In 2019, my Uber from the Auckland domestic airport to Ihumātao Rd took about nine minutes. I felt spoilt and embarrassed. I shared these feelings with Miriama, half a joke and half a confession. She replied, ‘Oi hard.'
The specific shame I felt was whakamā. Whakamā is an emotion that doesn’t have an exact English translation, but it is similar to feelings of inferiority, self-doubt and self-abasement. It’s a deep and enduring shame that is connected to dislocation, of not having a Turangawaewae, a place to stand, a sure-footing in te ao Māori . As an urban millennial brat, four generations removed from my papa kainga, whose inheritance of te reo was boarded up in my great grandmother’s mouth and never shared, whakamā is a feeling I have been living with since I was little. It is a feeling I have felt ever since my Pākehā primary school announced it was starting a kapa haka group and my mum goes, ‘Oh. You should do that, you’re Māori’, and I go ‘What’s a Māori?’ As a result, my consciousness but also my self-consciousness as an indigenous person was born.
But the thing about self-consciousness is that I find it just as insufferable as pretension. What good does paralysing yourself with worry about whether you are ‘Māori enough’ actually do, when you could actually be out there doing something? I have to constantly remind myself that no one thinks about me as much as I think about me, and it’s literally my life’s mahi to get over myself and do some actual mahi instead. This was part of the desire to go to Ihumātao, to get out of my own head and help.
In the days before I arrived at Ihumātao, I had been a wreck of nervous energy. I spent hours at work too anxious to concentrate. I did a poetry reading with the threat of tears wedged in my throat. I stayed up late typing unpublishable polysyllabic fragments out of an insatiable need to do something. Miriama sent me texts like bro we need to go and I replied with texts like I know. Why are we so pōhara, tho? We made cute faces in our phone cameras and put up despo instagram posts like Hmu if you are driving up to Tāmaki anytime soon and have 2 spare seats 4 2 cool wahine!! Have $$$ for gas!! We got our hustles on. Hard. Eventually we came up with enough for two last-minute one-way flights from Te Whanganui a Tara to Tāmaki on Saturday the 27th.
So like ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, I ‘felt the whakamā and got out of the fucking car’ anyway. We thanked the Uber driver (who wouldn’t drive any further), swung our backpacks on and walked the rest of the way. Cars lined Ihumātao Rd for miles. We hadn’t even set eyes on the occupation site yet and already there were so many people! Old koros with faded ta moko leaned on their canes. Young girls in denim jeans and uncle bob tees snapped selfies on their iPhones and a happy baby, with a wispy topknot, wriggled to be put down. He wanted to walk this little hikoi himself.
We were welcomed in by a brother in a high-vis vest and a big smile who immediately invited us to get a kai from the blue tent. A makeshift stage was assembled where rappers like Mellowdownz, Poetik, Jess B and Half-Queen, performed to a crowded audience of kaumātua in green fold-out chairs, pēpi in prams, and everyone in between. I scoped out all the hot rangatahi in their fresh coordinated outfits: Gucci, Louis, Kappa, Off-White, Supreme; accessorised with taonga: pounamu, bone, hei matau, drop earrings, heru combs, shark teeth. The patched helped pitch tents with the kids. Twelve-year-old girls ran trays of kai around confidently and took charge of the cup of tea stations. There were gazebos with materials to create placards, posters, lei. There was even a tent for free massages. The whole vibe was so chill and cheerful, that I looked at Miriama in horror. A cheeky text from a friend: This is like a Māori Woodstock.
The music, the energy, a general air of peace and love; it kind of was like a Māori Woodstock, but without drugs, or alcohol, or rubbish, or idiots. But even joking about it briefly made me feel ashamed. How could something so important, so serious, so urgent as protecting the whenua, and standing up to colonisation and the trauma that it has caused, also be like, fun and cool and good vibes?
The first time I ever encountered Bastion Point I was 11 years old. My siblings and I got out of the car at a family dinner and my Pākehā grandad said, ‘Oh look here comes the invasion of Bastion Point.’ I said to Mum, ‘What’s the invasion of Bastion Point?’ She said, ‘He’s just being racist’, and then I said ‘oh’ and that was that.
The second time I encountered Bastion Point I was in Year 11, in my history class. Our teacher, an ex-hippie, made a point of teaching us New Zealand history as opposed to like, idk the Tudors or whatever. Studying Bastion Point, I was confronted with the fact that land confiscation was still occurring in the 1970s, not just in ‘the distant past’ of the 1800s. It was the first time I really comprehended that colonisation was enduring in this country, but this country tends to pretend it’s not.
I also remember seeing that specific image of Bastion Point for the first time too. That photo, shot from a bird's eye view, capturing that circle of police enclosing the mana whenua. I remember staring at it blown up big on the projector, and wanting very badly to cry. Because already at the age of 16 I had experienced enough racism, both overt and insidious, personal and institutional, that left me with a frustration that I had been conditioned not to acknowledge but the image of Bastion Point had provoked it to the surface. I felt grief. That deep, specific widespread grief that Māori carry inside us that mourns not only the loss of the land but what the land meant to us. Mauri, connection, potential.
But at the same time learning about Bastion Point, the Land March of 1975, Nga Tama Toa and discovering our great leaders and thinkers like Joe Hawke, Ranginui Walker, Hilda Harawira and Whina Cooper, empowered me to think critically and generally be like, nah bro and reject the stale coloniser narratives. Before I started studying history all I had really learned about Māori at school was Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi and that Māori killed the moas. So it made a difference to me, to see that despite a whole history of struggle and land alienation, Māori still had the strength and the will to resist colonisation. The phrase 'Ka whaiwhai tonu matou; a struggle without end' seemed to summarise this perfectly to me, like a poem. And it has stayed with me since I discovered it, written across Ranginui Walker’s faded brown cover.
Which is why I felt guilty af.
I had packed my pink cargo pants, my black turtleneck and my beret for a reason. I had come prepared for the fight (though I accidentally left my aviators at home). In the days before my arrival, I had been glued to my phone checking for updates, anxious as. I had heard about the police moving in during the night. I had heard about activists being arrested. I had heard about the police presence intimidating the mana whenua. I was ready for the struggle. I was ready to really plot and tough it out. Hell, despite imprisonment being like my deepest truest fear alongside an alien invasion (because you know colonial trauma lol) I felt like I was prepared to get arrested (if our ancestors died for the land then the very least I could do is be held in a cell for 24 hours, surely). My readiness was related to my self-consciousness as an indigenous person. Having not been raised in te ao Māori I had taught myself through study. It’s one thing to talk the talk, to read the books, do a history degree, to agree in theory, but it’s another thing to walk it. But I was ready for that hikoi. I was prepared to protest.
But actually being at Ihumātao was a completely different vibe. By the time we arrived on Saturday the atmosphere had brightened. Jacinda had made some vague comments about halting the development, and the number of occupants at Ihumātao had swelled to the point where they far outnumbered the police. I quickly and sheepishly realised that there was little to no chance that I would be getting arrested. There was no hostility to be seen, let alone a fight to be had, unless I like, decided to behave like a total dickhead which would be a) random and disgraceful and b) quickly sorted out by one of the awesome wahine toa working tirelessly to uphold the tikanga and kaupapa of this occupation; Peaceful Passive Protection.
It’s winter, so the sun sets early and when it does its cold at Ihumātao. Miri and I, tentless, lay on the grass looking up at the stars, shivering and live-streaming our dumb thoughts to our followers on instagram. We must have only been there not even 5 minutes, when a young bro appeared with a blanket for us. Generosity and hospitality is not uncommon among Māori, it's called Manaakitanga, but when you’ve been away for a while, living in the city, where you are conditioned to look out for yourself or risk getting cast out onto the streets by the mean capitalist regime, acts of initiative and caring are moving. We both nearly cried. We said ‘Omg! Thank you!’ many many times. We took the blanket up the small hill behind the blue kai tent. We sat there amongst a few other Māori , with blankets and tino flags fluttering. From where we sat we could see the stage, all the people, and the shadowy grooves of the whenua. On the stage Pania gave a whaikorero and reminded us that we are ‘protectors not protestors.’ Something clicked in my head. Oh true, I thought.
I observed Pania when I saw her around the site. It was hard not to. She turns heads. She is beautiful and humble and hardworking. Even from a distance you can see and feel her mana. As she walked around the camp checking on everyone, making sure everyone was fed, housed and happy you could see the ground trembling around her, and you could tell that her leadership was sourced directly from the whenua, from Papatūānuku and the people.
She said: ‘And the last thing I want to say whanau I know you’re all out there and you're like wow, Pania brought everybody here, Pania this and Pania that but everybody, this kaupapa was started by me and my six cousins, and then it was supported by our whanau, and then it was by our marae, and then it was supported by our papa kainga.
‘So when you see whanau out there, marae members, please give them thanks also. Everyday I’m taking your hugs, your love and your selfie pictures back to share with them all. But I just wanted to mention this, sometimes it makes me feel uncomfortable too, Pania this and oh my uncles talking me up but it’s not me. Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi. Engari, he toa takitini. My strength is not mine alone but is the strength of many.’
I thought, 'Far out. Chur. What a wahine toa. Tautoko that'. This was no place for ego, for self-importance, for hierarchy. Unspoken klout rules dictating who you can or can’t talk to based on how many followers you have, didn’t apply here. Didn’t matter if you were Moana Jackson or Marama Davidson or a four-year-old kid with a perpetual snot nose or a hearty looking gang member in a tatty leather vest. All good, e hoa. Welcome brother. Everyone was treated the same, with dignity and respect as if everyone had a reason to be there, because everybody did.
And everyone was there too. Like, literally everyone. Many Pākehā don’t acknowledge this cos, idk it threatens their tight grasp on colonial power or something, but Māori have our own pop culture and icons: musicians, artists, instagram influencers, cool girls, dream boys etc. In the few days I was there I saw Teeks, Coco Solid, Stan Walker, Kahu Kutia, Troy Kingi, Miriama Aoake, Hanelle Harris, TylerJade, The bros from Nesian Mystik, Nicole Semitara Hunt, Māori Mermaid, Meriana Johnson and Rachel House. I can’t even name them all. There were so many Māori. Basically every hot woke Māori I follow on Insta was there getting a feed from the kai tent or taking a turn on the front line. It was exciting. We were low-key like, um this is a Māoritopia, and despite the sobering circumstances that brought us all here, it was also lit. We all felt how rare and special this was, the opportunity for all of us to meet and gather, brought together by the call of the whenua.
And everyone was so nice and kind and generous. A big part of my whakamā was having no clear plans. I didn’t want to be a burden, that egg rocking up unprepared and annoying, but keen on a free feed or something. We had no tent, no sleeping bags, no place in Auckland to stay. Usually an unplanned trip like this would stress me tf out. I am the type of girl who appreciates an itinerary. But it was easy. All we had were our backpacks and good intentions and the universe seemed to be working itself out for us effortlessly. Almost without prompting, friends were offering to take us in. We even tried hitchhiking and didn’t get too lost or too murdered! One night we slept on the floor of our friend Piki’s fancy hotel room and managed a quick dip in the spa on the way out. Another night, Miri’s cuzzie Heath from Nesian Mystik let us crash on the couch of his inner city apartment. We were able to check out the Tūrama lights festival at Albert Park - Piki had an installation there. And on our third day, not enough invoices in our accounts to take our broke asses home yet, we lime scootered to Ponsonby, and Rachel put us up at her house, fed us sausages and kumara chips and wine. When I felt whakamā about imposing, saying ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ an infuriating amount of times, every e hoa who had us said the same thing. ‘Don’t be silly. Don’t be shy. Make yourself at home. You are welcome anytime.’
My favourite novel has nothing to do with anything. It’s American, about insufferable American writers. But in the story, an insufferable American writer asks an older, more established insufferable writer why she makes a point of helping younger writers. She replies, ‘When I was young a few older people gave me a hand. It’s the kind of thing you can’t really repay, because the people who help you may never need your help. But what you can do is pass it on, so I try to pass it on.’
I thought about this as the young bro gave us the blanket. I thought about this as Pania gave us her words and her leadership. I thought about this as Piki and Heath and Rachel gave us a place to sleep. I thought about this as the aunties gave us hot kai and cups of tea. I thought about this as the mana whenua allowed us to stand with the land with them, and experience what a decolonised way of living is. And I thought about this as the whenua gave us the opportunity to gather together.
I had come to Ihumātao with the intention to give, but in the process I had received so much. Part of me felt guilty. I was unsure if I deserved it. I felt as though I had arrived too late. Both at Ihumātao, and in history, where much of the hard mahi has already been done by others, by our ancestors. I thought, with my heart so full it hurt, how tf can I possibly share this? How can I give back? What can I pass on?
That Saturday night, in the cold, beneath the stars, Stan Walker told us that he doesn’t always feel articulate talking. I nudged Miriama in the ribs and said, ‘You relate to that eh, sis?’ Miriama replied, ‘Shut up egg’, but then, ‘Yeah true’, as Stan explained that the way he communicates and expresses himself is through his music. I was only teasing her but it did apply. Miriama is an artist. That’s how she articulates herself. That’s how she contributes to te ao Māori. That’s how she gives back.
Growing up, my mother told me two things consistently 1) a woman can never have too many handbags and 2) do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Well, I’m not going to be one of the ones on the front line, holding it down, leading the way. That’s not my place as manuhiri and as a lil egg obviously, but it’s also not my ambition, or where my skills are. I don’t have political power. I can’t make stirring moving whaikorero. I don’t have expert knowledge on all our tikanga and history. I certainly can’t sing. But I can write, and I have a platform as a writer. A platform that means nothing to me, unless I can use it to share the way I experience and understand the world as an indigenous person, as I have in my book, Poūkahangatus. A platform that means nothing to me, unless I can share it.
Because what my time at Ihumātao confirmed for me is that no one is winning unless everyone is winning. If you have a plate you share it. You make sure ‘everybody ate.’ Because that’s gangster. Because that’s the Māori way. That’s why so many Māori from all over turned up to protect another iwi’s whenua. It’s an act of reciprocity. We look after each other to be looked after. Nurture the land and the land will nurture you. And I believe that with the current climate growing more and more precarious, the need to honour indigenous rights and knowledge becomes more and more imperative. That’s why we all answered the call. The karanga of Ihumātao goes beyond tribal connections to this particular whenua, it’s also Papatūānuku who calls to her us as her descendants, as indigenous people, as kaitiaki.
So even if I didn’t know exactly what I could give or what difference my presence would make I’m glad I made it to Ihumātao. I’m glad I got to stand with the land and experience so much generosity, leaving with a refreshed and amplified understanding of what kotahitanga and manaakitanga actually means, and what decolonisation actually looks like. What I came to understand at Ihumātao, among the kaumātua doing karakia and the rangatahi filling up social media feeds with livestreams and updates, is that there is not one correct way to give back, just as there is not one correct way to be Māori . And it’s okay to be whakamā. It’s okay to not know exactly where you are heading. Maybe the important thing is to get in that waka and start paddling, even if your waka is a thirteen dollar Uber. If you fall off or feel out of your depth, all good e hoa. There will always be a cuzzie around to fish you out and dry you off, then point you in the direction of a potato to peel or a wharepaku to clean. It all makes a difference.
The next day Miri and I spend the morning driving around Auckland trying to scrape together painting supplies. She was keen to do some graf, to paint a mural at Ihumātao. We pick up spray cans in classic tino colours; red, black and white and return to the site. Miriama gets permission from the Mana Whenua to paint a fence. I try and help as much as I can, but mostly this includes staying out of her way, but I also fill up cups of water and hold my phone torch up for her once the sun falls. Aunties have a geez while they wander past and go ‘Chur. That’s neat all right!’ Little bros gather around and want to show Miri their bombs. We give them vivids and a maths book and they get to work too. By the time we are finished, it is late and dark and we are cracking tf up because the only way we can see the piece at all, is by way of flash photography. I take pictures of Miriama next to her mahi. Ihumātao in white against a backdrop of red koru. Then Miri takes a photo of me. I ask Miri if she is happy. Yeah, she says. She feels heaps better. She thanks me for my hard work and hands me my phone back. I thank her for her beautiful mahi and for letting me be a small, dumb part of it. And then I start writing.
Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $20)